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Plays well with others
Neil Gaiman and his circle
Hanging Out with the Dream King: Conversations with Neil Gaiman and His Collaborators
By Joseph McCabe. Fantagraphics, 308 pages, $17.95.

Marvel 1602
By Neil Gaiman. Marvel, 248 pages, $24.99.

Neil Gaiman is one of the most popular fantasy writers in the world, and one of the most curious things about him is that almost all of his best works have been collaborations. The leather-jacketed Britís bestselling novel American Gods is his alone, and so is his childrenís book Coraline; beyond that, heís famous for being a team player. (Mirror Mask, a film written by Gaiman and directed by his long-time collaborator Dave McKean, is due out this summer.) His reputation, in fact, is largely built on Sandman, the comic book that he wrote and a legion of cartoonists drew from 1988 to 1996.

A grand, 76-issue story line with a definite ending, Sandman has spawned numerous spinoffs and been collected in a series of 10 volumes that are still making subcultural ripples. (Gaiman and artist Mike Dringenberg came up with the idea of depicting Death as a pale-skinned goth chick wearing an ankh, for instance.) When in 1991 Tori Amos sang "If you need me, me and Neilíll be hanging out with the Dream King" in "Tear in Your Hand," she was talking about Sandman.

Joseph McCabeís Hanging Out with the Dream King: Conversations with Neil Gaiman and His Collaborators amounts to a lovefest, in part because Gaiman is legendarily pleasant to work with ó he gives his artists scripts that play to their strengths and interests, and heís quick to praise and credit his collaborators. Even Sam Kieth, the Sandman co-creator who left after five issues because his art style was incompatible with Gaimanís writing, has nothing but kind things to say about him. (Kieth also credits his much-quoted description of the situation ó "I felt like Jimi Hendrix in the Beatles" ó to Gaiman.) McCabe interviews a dozen Sandman artists, as well as the seriesís editor, letterer, and colorist and a few collaborators from other Gaiman projects (including Alice Cooper and Terry Pratchett). Sandman fans will appreciate the wealth of behind-the-scenes detail; readers whoíve come to Gaiman through his prose alone will likely be baffled.

Gaimanís most recent foray into comics is Marvel 1602, in which Marvel Comics heroes ó Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and so on ó appear as they might have 400 years ago. (Dr. Strange, for instance, is the court magician to Queen Elizabeth and lives in "the village of Greenwich" instead of Greenwich Village.) Drawn by Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove in a lush, half-painterly style whose light brushstrokes suggest old engravings, itís a handsome book, despite the ® and ™signs clinging like leeches to the two words of its title. It also reveals some of Gaimanís writing weaknesses. When heís on, he seems to be pulling stories directly out of the collective unconscious, with a gentle seriousness grounded in his thorough knowledge of mythology and folklore. When heís off, his work has a Renaissance Faire patina of for-I-am-a-teller-of-tales and a tendency to rely on deus ex machina plot devices and endings.

Marvel 1602 provides an excuse for Gaiman to riff on some familiar characters, but he doesnít offer any particular insight into them. Some of his ideas are clever: Thorís dialogue is alliterative, in the manner of Old English verse: "Mighty my Mjolnir, fighter of frost-giants, stronger than storms." But a lot of them keep elbowing the reader in the ribs. (Having a young lad named Peter Parquagh ó as in "Peter Parker" ó tag along for an adventure is fine, but does he have to keep talking about spiders? We get it!) One major plot point requires Virginia Dare, the first child born to English settlers in North America, to be a mutant who can turn into giant white animals. And the conclusion is accomplished through some pseudo-metaphysical hand waving that involves, among other things, an object "crafted . . . from the fringes of alternity."

Even so, the book is enormously entertaining, and what keeps it aloft is its artwork ó Kubert has been drawing comics for many years, but his work has never looked anywhere near this good. When you read Gaimanís script for the first chapter (itís reproduced at the end of the book), it becomes clear why. Gaiman isnít just handing Kubert instructions, heís writing specifically for him, suggesting images the artist is sure to have fun drawing and relishing the prospect of what Kubert is going to make of them. Thatís the mark of a great collaborator: Gaiman brings out the best in his partners, even when his own work isnít at its best.

Issue Date: February 18 - 24, 2005
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